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Sensitive Listening

Kim Payton, Ph.D. 2015


Have you had the experience of speaking to someone who was with you physically, but otherwise not there?  How did it make you feel?  Most people feel left out, uncared for, ignored, and before long, they begin to feel angry.  One of the main functions of anger, in fact is to get other people’s attention.


Have you ever had the experience of realizing that you had not been there when someone else spoke?  Where were you?  Most people report that they are thinking of what they will say next, daydreaming, or distracted by something that is going on.  This is automatic non-listening.  We are not really fully present in the act of listening, and as such hear very little and often make others upset with us.  Since, when we are lost in automatic pilot we can access only past memories and are isolated from the present, we miss out on what is going on in the moment.


Automatic non-listening is probably responsible for more misunderstandings and damaged relationships than anything else in human relationships.  So what can we do about it?  The solution is called sensitive listening, which is a discipline that helps us really be with people when they speak.


1. The first step is to DELAY AUTOMATIC REACTIONS, whatever they are, and focus on the speaker. Focus on all the aspects of their communication, their words, tone of voice, rate of speech, posture, level of tension, gestures, skin color, breathing and so on.  Focusing on all of these messages provides important information on the total meaning of what the person is communicating. 


Don’t worry about it being too much to pick up.  We each have a 16 billion neuron bio-computer between our ears.  We are picking up all this information anyway and reacting to it automatically and unconsciously.  This exercise just makes us more conscious of what we are already receiving.


So the first step is to delay your automatic reaction to the speaker. If you are daydreaming, stop it and focus on the speaker.  If you are thinking of what you are going to say, stop it.  If your attention is wandering, stop it.  You may find in the beginning that you have to delay your automatic reactions over and over, it just takes practice. 


As you continue to focus on the speaker, they will notice your attention and appreciate it, at least unconsciously.  You will also begin noticing things that will make what is really going on more interesting than your auto-pilot.  Delaying your automatic pilot will become easier.


Hint:  If you are having difficulty focusing on what the speaker is saying because, for example they are speaking too slowly, then try repeating their words internally, it can help you focus.


As you delay your response you may find that the exercise generates some energy in you that you may experience as tension.  As you delay and focus on the speaker, remember to breathe deeply and regularly and release excess energy and tension on the exhale. Sensitive listening provides the additional benefit of time to relax whenever anyone speaks to you!


2.  Once you have begun to focus your attention on the speaker, you can go on to the second step. The second step consists of asking yourself, “what is going on here?” and ACKNOWLEDGE OBVIOUS FACTS AND FEELINGS.


If the speaker is in a positive, open and clear state of awareness, you can simply respond to the content of what they are saying.  By this point you will have been paying attention long enough for them to say what is on their mind and can just respond.  Respond in a way that communicates precisely what you have just perceived using phrases like:


                        I get the impression that...

                        What I hear you saying is...

                        So what you are telling me is...


This lets the speaker know that you have been listening and reassures them that you understand what they are saying.  It also gives them a chance to let you know if you happen to be off track.  The key to this step is to acknowledge the exactly what the speaker is saying without editorializing or commenting.  Too often we want to get our opinion in before the speaker knows we have understood.  By acknowledging precisely what they have said you let them know that you have heard, understood and accepted what they have said.


Communication requires acceptance, not agreement.  To deny the reality of another person makes an enemy, to accept their experience and respond with your own makes for real relationship.  Refusing to accept the experience of another person shuts off access to their most significant assets.  Entering into their experience accesses their perspectives, knowledge and helps them want to help you.


If the speaker is not in such a clear state, you will notice it as you ask yourself “what is going on here?”  The second step in this case consists of stating directly to the person what is obvious to you.  Simply ACKNOWLEDGE OBVIOUS FACTS AND FEELINGS.  For example:


                        You seem a bit tired today.

                        I see you are worried about what you are saying.

                        I feel that you are agitated and upset.

                        I get the impression that you are depressed.

                        I am picking up something off you, but I am not sure what it is.


Acknowledging the obvious in this way has a powerful effect on the listener.  If you are accurate in your comment you will notice a shift in the speaker’s state which may even be dramatic.  Usually you will find that the speaker will move into a state that improves their communication with you.


This method works particularly well with angry people because an angry person is really after quality attention and in using this method you are giving it to them.  Initially you may be concerned that the angry person will blow up in your face if you say: “I get the feeling that you are angry, how can I help you?”, but you will find that most angry people will appreciate your directness.  People tend to get bit by angry dogs when they run away, not when they face the dog.  The same usually goes for angry people.


Note:  There are two exceptions.  Some people get lost in their anger either because of pathology, intoxication or just plain meanness. They required more advanced strategies.  Secondly, some people who have become extremely angry need a little extra time to get it out of their system.  Let them blow off steam, continue to acknowledge the obvious: “It takes a while to get over an upset like this doesn’t it?” Soon you will find a more rational person looking at you with gratitude, and a touch of embarrassment.


In this second step you establish rapport with the speaker.  You let them know you are focusing on them, understand them and accept them for who they are.  That is an extremely valuable experience for most people, and has the power to heal deep hurts. 


There are few things more important to people than the quality attention of others.  The result of giving this attention is that you get back a similar quality of attention from them.  This bridge of attention is the carrier wave of human communication.  You will know that you have it by sensing or feeling a connection with the speaker. 


This is easier to understand if you think of the people that you communicate with easily, with only a few words, compared to those with whom you can talk until you are blue in the face, who still don’t understand.  The difference is this bridge of rapport.


3.  Once you have established rapport, the rest is easy.  In step three you ASK CLARIFYING AND CONFIRMING QUESTIONS to obtain added information about what the speaker is saying, and to verify that what you understand is accurate:


        CLARIFYING                                                                  CONFIRMING

        Say more about..                                                          So what you are telling me is...

        Could you clarify what you meant by...                          What I hear you saying is...

        Please explain...                                                            What I understand is...


If you are correct, the speaker will let you know, and if not, you simply as much of the process as necessary.


Until you practice this method it is easy to underestimate its power.  Very few people have associates that listen to them well. By listening sensitively to another, we help them heighten their state of awareness, cleanse the distortion of emotional negativity from their thinking, and deepen their understanding of their own thoughts and feelings.


You will notice as you sensitively listen to a person that as they speak to you, their thinking will become more clear, and when they have finished, they will understand themselves better.  You not only provide help, but do it in a way that is assisting the speaker in helping themselves.


A Final Note on Genuineness


To some, this listening method seems a bit artificial.  You may have to put up with feeling a bit awkward long enough to adapt it to your own method of establishing rapport, defusing contaminating emotions and coming to a better understanding of others.  Try using the technique as described as much as possible until you get a sense of how it works and then begin modifying it to suit your own needs and style.  If you really want to open up a deeper level of communication, yet you are not very polished in your use of the method, your genuineness will carry you through to your objective and your skill will improve.


What counts the most is a genuine desire to understand others better and improve your communication.  If you are just going through the motions, it will show.  If you are just humoring the speaker, and really don’t want to hear them, they will know it. If you just want to get an edge on someone by developing an artificial rapport, they will sense the manipulation and throw up defenses that are difficult to penetrate.


Sensitive listening is a tool which is very useful in demonstrating the genuineness of the intentions of the listener.   If you do want to deepen your relationships, and really want to hear what another person is about, then a genuine attempt at delaying automatic responses, acknowledging the obvious, and exploring for clarity, however flawed in execution, will accomplish its end if you persevere!


Sensitive Listening In Summary

  1. Focus on the speaker and delay your automatic reactions

  2. Acknowledge obvious facts and feelings

  3. Clarify details by asking specific questions

  4. Establish closure by restating or rephrasing what you heard










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